New Notre Dame experience

CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune

GREENSBORO, N.C. — When the Notre Dame women’s basketball team landed at Piedmont-Triad Airport this week, the Irish were surrounded by southern hospitality.

When the Irish step onto the Greensboro Coliseum court for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the Irish won’t be surrounded by 16,000 hostile Connecticut fans.

Notre Dame embarks on a new era, playing a conference tournament on a neutral court for the first time in more than a decade.

Top seed Notre Dame (29-0 overall, 16-0 ACC) plays No. 9 seed Florida State (20-11) on Friday at 2 p.m. EST (no local television). The winner advances to Saturday’s 5 p.m. semifinal (ESPNU).

The ACC championship game is Sunday at 7 p.m. (ESPN).

Florida State rallied from eight points down in the second half to beat No. 8 seed Miami in overtime, 72-67. Natasha Howard led the Seminoles with 30 points and 16 rebounds. Notre Dame beat Florida State, 81-60, in Tallahassee on Feb. 6, in the only previous meeting between the schools. Natalie Achonwa scored 24 points to lead the Irish.

Notre Dame won its first Big East tournament crown in its last season in the league. It was at the same tournament last season that the Irish learned they would be heading for the ACC this season.

“It feels great,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of the Irish playing in their first ACC Tournament. “We’re excited about the neutral court, and the chance to have a new fan base. People who haven’t seen us play are going to get the chance to see us, now.

“To have a true neutral court, even though there are a lot of schools close by, they aren’t playing a bunch of games on that court. I think the biggest thing is the familiarity with the fans. Playing games on your home court, you have a feel for the rims … you’re just comfortable there. It’s all about the comfort, and the fans contribute to that as well.”

Notre Dame returns four starters from last season’s Big East Tournament championship squad.

“I think there’s a big carryover from the success we had last season,” McGraw said. “I think that’s what happened in the regular season, here. We went undefeated last season in the Big East, and now, we understand how important every game is. This year, we came out, and were able to do it again. I think we’re thinking the same thing with the tournament. You go in knowing that every team is there for the same reason. Everybody wants to win.

“Sometimes the team that plays the hardest and wants it the most is the one that’s going to come out. I don’t think we’re going to relax because we’re on a neutral court. Last year, we had a little more to prove, being at Connecticut. But this year, I think we have the same focus and intensity.”

Sophomore guard Jewell Loyd averages 18.4 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. Kayla McBride, a senior guard, averages 17.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists. Natalie Achonwa, a senior post, brings 14.7 points and 7.7 rebounds to the Irish attack.

Freshman point guard Lindsay Allen averages 6.9 points and 3.8 assists, and Ariel Braker, who starts at forward, averages 4.0 points and 5.0 rebounds.

Michaela Mabrey comes off the bench at guard and averages 9.0 points a game, and post Taya Reimer averages 8.0 points in a reserve role.

By playing in the ACC tournament, Notre Dame will be participating in one of the nation’s premier basketball happenings.

“The ACC women’s basketball tournament is the best women’s basketball conference tournament in America,” ACC senior associate commission Nora Lynn Finch said. “When these young ladies from Notre Dame go down to Greensboro, they’re going to be overwhelmed with warmth, with friendliness, and with hospitality. The fans know basketball. The fans love this championship. The community really embraces it. We have a lot of southern hospitality associated with the tournament.”

The ACC has been pioneering with its women’s basketball tournament. The league hosts more than 8,000 elementary and middle school students at games Thursday and Friday. Curriculum for students ranging from geography, math and language arts is incorporated into the tournament. The ACC also has a clinic for more than 1,200 youngsters during the tournament week, and former Florida State coaching legend Bobby Bowden is the scheduled speaker for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes gathering.

NCAA officials have used the Greensboro template for hospitality, forming host committees for each round of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. According to Finch, hosting ACC tournaments is a labor of love in Greensboro.

“The people of Greensboro love what they do,” Finch said. “They do it for our golf tournament, they do it for our baseball championship. It doesn’t matter what the event is, these people love welcoming people into the community. They just can’t do enough to make people comfortable and take care of them, so all the team needs to worry about is winning a championship, and I think that’s enough. There’s a great deal of energy and enthusiasm in the arena.”

Notre Dame guard Hannah Huffman (24) goes for a loose ball in the second half of an NCAA women's college basketball game against Florida State, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Tallahassee, Fla. Notre Dame defeated Florida State 81-60. The Irish meet Florida State again on Friday in an ACC quarterfinal game. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw communicates with players during her team's game against Virginia Tech on Jan. 30. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
Battling in practice have made Notre Dame's Kayla McBride, right, and Jewell Loyd better players. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)